Weapons of mass distraction: ballistics, beaches and badges

Regular readers (are there any regular readers?) may already be familiar with a archiving project that I worked on over the winter.

In 1986, The Royal Armouries carried out an excavation on the Thames foreshore in front of The Tower of London.


They were looking for evidence of the Armouries’ workshops, but information about this dig, or what they found, has never been commonly available to the public. This is the archive material that I and my fellow-volunteers were working on.


Last weekend Kathleen, the Curatorial Assistant who set up the project, and me and fellow-volunteer Guy took some of this archive material out and about as part of the annual Tower Open Foreshore weekend. This is one of the only opportunities for people to get down onto the foreshore at The Tower of London, and it’s very popular indeed.

In the 1930s, this section of foreshore was turned into a beach for the use of local children, complete with deckchairs, buckets and spades, rowing boats and all the entertainments you’d expect to find at a seaside resort.


The beach closed during the war, but it was very popular indeed during the 1950s and we occasionally meet visitors who can remember playing there as children. Gradual decline and concerns over pollution in the Thames, lead to the closure of the beach in 1971 and these days access is restricted to special open days.

So Guy, Kathleen and I joined other groups including Historic Royal Palaces, the City of London Archaeological Society (COLAS), Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and Thames 21 to delight the summer masses on the embankment and the foreshore.

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(nb. these photos were taken first thing on Saturday, before the masses arrived, hence the lack of masses)

We had a selection of objects from the dig alongside a selection from the handling collection which visitors could handle, feel the weight of and generally get to grips with. These included pieces of flintlock mechanism (people loved the term ‘gun furniture’), bayonet tips, a pike head, some examples of shot including a small canonball.


P1260259  P1260260 

We also had a couple of special little pieces which you might have seen on the blog before:

This fragment of a Christ in Passion pilgrim badge


and this lovely medieval copper-alloy book clasp


It’s also traditional to have an activity. These are often aimed at children (although we all know that the adults like to join in too) but when setting this up, Kathleen had been trying to think of an Armouries-related children’s activity that didn’t involve arming small children and having them run amok. That sort of thing is rightly frowned upon.  Hmm.

During the dig, there were several examples of badges and insignia found; pilgrim badges, railway badges and buttons, Royal Armouries insignia and so on, so we invited our visitors to make a badge of their own, either drawing on Royal Armouries examples for inspiration, or designing their own.

Badge number 1 went to Guy…

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…who, true to form, chose to display his allegiance to the Gunners. How apt!


And he wasn’t the only one. Archaeologists just cannot resist a badge. This one was made by another Guy (not the Guy above)


Alongside the artefacts, we also had some of the records, including a selection of site photographs, and these also proved a hit, especially with those of a particularly archaeological bent.


A number of people (people who are generally very aware of archaeological activity in London)  remarked that they had no idea that a dig had ever been carried out on the foreshore here, and one TDP pal of mine had a small fit and did the monkey dance when he saw the photos, as he has been trying to work out levels and rates of erosion on the Tower foreshore and these records provide hard evidence.

This was a chance for us to highlight The Royal Armouries and the, often overlooked, role of archaeology in the collection. The response to the appearance of these artefacts and records demonstrates the value of the projects like this one, opening up those cupboard doors and enabling access, for the first time, to these unknown and unseen archives.

All the stands had a similarly fruitful day and we were told that there were about 990 visitors to the event as a whole on the Saturday and 1100 on the Sunday, so these are really good numbers (we did try to count how many people visited our stand, but we kept losing count, especially when we were swamped by crowds!). The queue for the foreshore was enormous.


And we did also get to see a few of the artefacts picked up on the foreshore during the weekend. These are particularly appropriate:

two world war 1 shells


a gun flint, as used in all those flintlock mechanisms we’ve been talking about.


I’ve also just found out that there will be another chance to visit the foreshore in September, during the Thames Festival. Don’t miss it.


Weapons of mass distraction: Time and Tide

For anyone around in London this weekend, 19th and 20th July, a very special event will be taking place.

The annual Tower Open Foreshore event is one of the only opportunities for people to get down onto the foreshore at The Tower of London, and it’s very popular indeed. It’s also FREE 😀

192992 *

This weekend, staff and volunteers from The Royal Armouries will be joining other groups including Historic Royal Palaces, the City of London Archaeological Society (COLAS), Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and Thames 21 to delight the summer masses on the embankment and the foreshore.

You can do some foreshore foraging and have finds identified by experts, see the entrance to Traitor’s Gate from the river side, there’s usually some dressing up, lots of artefacts to look at and handle, and this year The Royal Armouries will be showing some of the archive from the 1986 Armouries Workshops foreshore dig for the very first time.

So if you’re around, come on down to Tower Hill, on the embankment, and have a go at some badge making, learn about the Ordnance workshops, have a look at some gun parts from flintlock weapons and generally mess about by the river.

It’s fun 😀


NB. Access to the foreshore is tide dependent. The approximate times are:

12.45 – 14:45 approx. on 19th July
13.30 – 15:30 approx. on 20th July
NOTE: these are approximate times and are dependent upon tides.


More info here:


Further information (courtesy of TDP)

Access to the river foreshore is dependent upon safety and the tide times. Access is on a first come, first served basis, and numbers will be restricted to up to 500, depending upon safety advice. Only surface level archaeology is permitted and any significant finds must be recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Sturdy footwear is recommended, a plastic bag and wet wipes may come in handy, metal detectors are strictly prohibited!


Weapons of Mass Distraction – the final frontier

I haven’t been at the Armouries for a few weeks, but last week we were back to do the final checking, sorting and packing of the archive.

This will mean that it’s ready for the records to be handed over to the Royal Armouries team in Leeds to be accessioned and formally added to the RA database. It’s quite exciting really, as that will mean that this material can finally exist out in the world, somewhere other than a cupboard.

The pictures are, however, somewhat less exciting, consisting as they do of  boxes…


piles of artifact records…


and biscuits 😀  …


(actually, these are exciting).

So as far as the artifacts are concerned, it’s all over. There’s actually still a whole digitisation project to be done with the photographic records of the original dig and of the artifacts. We will be working to guidelines given by the RA, as we need our records to work with the RA’s systems. But as I’m a digitisation novice, I’ve signed up for a MOOC being offered by UCL under their label UCLeXtend, Introduction to Digital Curation. We’ll see how that goes.

So at the end of our efforts, our reward? Rhubarb and custard sweeties and a sense of satisfaction.


Weapons of mass distraction: Record Breakers

Although there are still a few artifacts to work through,  I spent this week’s session rifling through files of records. That means that there will be nothing shiny in this week’s blog.


The kinds of records made include papers relating to the initial desk-based survey, the drawings and context sheets from the dig itself, an assessment of artifacts, notes from what looks like a presentation that was given about the dig, and so on.



These records proved fascinating and were indicative of the state of play in the 1980s. At this point in time, the Tower foreshore was accessible to mudlarks, metal detectorists and basically anyone who wanted to visit. This is a time before the Portable Antiquities Scheme, before Finds Liaison Officers and before Foreshore Permits to protect the archaeological deposits and advise interested parties, including mudlarks, on recovering, recording and reporting finds. This is specifically alluded to in the excavation report. One set of documents in particular suggests that there was some ‘disagreement’ about the advisability of allowing random, unfettered “Treasure Hunting” on such a historically and archaeologically significant site.

There is also an extensive collection of site photographs, with contact sheets and notes.


I find these particularly interesting as, firstly, they are a social document. This is archaeology 1980s style. Perhaps not so different from archaeology 2000s style, but it’s funny to see how much archaeology was carried out topless! A couple of the senior staff at the Royal Armouries recognised some of the faces in these photos.

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More importantly, these are a visual record of the condition of the foreshore in 1986. A lot of what we can see in the photos simply doesn’t exist in the same way now, as this stretch of foreshore has been subject to significant erosion over the past few years.  The fact that the excavators took not only the above action shots, but also shots of the trenches at different stages of the excavations; the sections where we can clearly see the layers that made up this stretch of foreshore; a number of shots of timber structures, possibly a revetment or the base of a set of river stairs that were recorded; the riverside wall down to foundation level, and more, makes this collection of images archaeological gold.


These are just my crappy photos of photos, but I’m going to be doing a mammoth scanning’n’tagging session with these photos, so at some point in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, they should be accessible to view properly.


There was also a, frankly hilarious, document that would be of particular interest to anyone working in conservation and archiving. Glynn? Adam?


These are the guidelines for processing and storing finds, as issued in 1983. Among the dos and don’ts are these gems:

Don’t wrap finds in toilet paper.


Don’t store finds in fag packets or baccy tins.


Don’t keep artifacts under your bed or in the garage.


And, for anyone who is lucky enough not to be able to  actually remember 1983, welcome to the 1980s!


Ah, the ’80s *wistful smile*. So bad. So very bad.

At the beginning of this post I said no shiny things, but in true Time Team style, Chris came up with a last minute bag of shiny buttons recovered from the site, so here they are. Shiny. Shiny.

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Weapons of mass distraction: …and the Box of Problems

Well, that crept up on us. We’re approaching the last boxes of archive material and this means that we’re having to go back to the scary box where we’ve been putting all our ‘problems’. We’ve been, more or less, ignoring this for weeks in the sure and certain hope that all the problems would miraculously solve themselves but, as is so often the way, they haven’t.

Glynn, from the LAARC has joined us for a couple of hours to help with some of these (thanks Glynn *waves*). I’m not going to dwell on the problems too much, as they only make up a tiny proportion of the total number of artifacts in the archive, and Glynn’s input has given us a strategy for attacking them, so the majority shouldn’t really be problems any more (more about that next time). Suffice it to say that they consist of bags without artifacts, artifacts without bags, artifacts with bags but without labels, artifacts with bags and labels which make no sense, etc… you get the picture.

One of said artifacts, without bag, label, context or anything is this chunky coin.


It’s fairly worn, but it is possible to see some of the legend.

It looks like a bronze sestertius of Antoninus Pius and, on the obverse, starting from the lower left, I can make out:

[…]O [?] I N V S A V G      P I V […]

and on the Reverse:


[…] E R T A […]   C O S I I I I

. . . . . .  S       C

The first word is LIBERTAS, and the coin shows the figure of Liberty, and C O S IIII provides a date range, dating the coin to Pius’ fourth consulship with Marcus Aurelius II between 145 and 161 CE. SC  is ‘Senatus Consulto’ – by decree of the Senate.

And just for scale:


Coming across an object like this highlights a vitally important element of an archive which I have, so far, said little about: records. It’s true, I think, to say that the objects we’ve been looking at mean little without the corresponding records, as when they are removed from all context we can barely even begin to hazard an interpretation. This coin has come to us with no record (as far as we know at the moment) and therefore no context. There is absolutely no mention of Roman coins in the excavation report. The dig didn’t get to Roman layers as the Roman waterfront was actually abotu 50metres  north of the current waterfront. The foreshore is a tricky environment for stratigraphy in any case, but I’m sure that someone would have mentioned finding this if it had come up during the dig.

So we have no clue (as yet) where this coin may have come from. A best guess would be that it was a mudlark find that’s been stored with the archive for safekeeping. There are several other artifacts which present similar problems.

So this raises a question: what to do with them?

Watch this space…

Weapons of mass distraction: slag and frags

Alongside some interesting objects from the archive, today’s post is also going to feature some mysterious frags. Look out for those later.

But first here’s a lovely copper alloy fitting found by Alan.


We wondered out loud what this could have been for, and I was wondering whether it was associated with the similar fittings that came out of one of the boxes earlier on in the project.


It clearly folds over and the two ends probably clasped together with the small pin, so perhaps it was a strap-end (?).

And Chris happened across this object:


I’m not sure what it was labelled as. It’s very spindly for a nail, and has no screw-thread or other markings that might suggest it’s a bolt, but a quick pass under the expert eye of one of the specialists resulted in the suggestion that it could possibly be a pistol ramrod. We’ve already had a few other little bits of ramrod and ramrod fittings, so it’s interesting to see what could be a more substantial section of one.

Guy had loads of these giant iron staples. Perhaps these were used for fencing, or maybe just general repairs to timber structures.


And so to frags.

Today’s boxes contained a disproportionate number of ‘frags’. Bits of things, identifiable and mysterious, all different sizes and in varying states of preservation. Bags and bags of them, meticulously recovered from the foreshore by the archaeologists.

Many of these fragments, most of the ones I had, were iron and so prone to corrosion and  significant deterioration over time. This is the continuation of the process begun when the objects were still in the foreshore, and many of them (the ones below are nails) were probably pretty far gone to start with. So even though these objects are not badly stored, over time a bag of nails becomes a bag of nails and a bag of dust/rust (the lumps in the second image below are literally lumps of rust that just flake off the nails, some with stones stuck to them).

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The frags below left are rivet frags, but I’ve no idea what the ones below right are/were.

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Mind you, not all frags look like these unidentifiable lumps of rusty metal. Some frags look like this:


Last week Alan audited one of two fragments of pilgrim badge listed in the excavation report and, wouldn’t you know it, he got the other pilgrim frag too. This one is a part of a St. Thomas Becket pilgrim badge, which would have looked something like one of these (from the Museum of London’s collection):

becket 3 1becket 22

Clearly, neither of these exactly match Alan’s frag, but you get the idea. It’s the centre front part of the collar/sash of the saint’s clothing.

Oh yeah, and here’s the slag:


1. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-37242&start=162&rows=1

2. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-29287&start=99&rows=1

Weapons of mass distraction: slight return

This week I was back at the Tower continuing work on the archive of the 1986 Royal Armouries foreshore dig. Yay 😀

I’m really pleased that we’re able to carry on with this project, as it was originally set up as a pilot, just to see how it would go. We’re hoping to complete the recording and upgrading of the archiving standards for the entire archive by about Easter, working just a half day per week.

First out of the box…


Not only the neck of the bottle, but also the cork bung 😀

Today we had a good collection of gun parts. Here are three:

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These are (top left) a bayonet chape end, (top right) a main spring, and (bottom left) two ramrod retaining springs.





A couple of particularly interesting finds also emerged. First, this section of a button mould. You can see where the molten metal would have formed the shank at the back of the button (which is where the button would be sewn onto the garment). This looks like it would have been a three-piece mould, with another section like this to form the other half of the back of the button, and a (patterned?) plate on top to form the front of the button. The molten metal would have been poured into the mould through the shaft next to the  shank.


And, the star find from Alan, a piece of a pilgrim badge.


Now I’ve been trying to do a bit of quick internet sleuthing to see what this piece would have looked like in its complete state. I peered at it. I squinted up my eyes trying for force my brain into understanding what I was looking at. I wasn’t even sure which way up it went. There are two pilgrim badges listed in the excavation report as having come from the appropriate context; a Christ in passion badge and a St. Thomas Becket pilgrim badge. Hmmmmm.

I was finally rescued by the Museum of London’s online database.

Christ passion- *

* http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-29129&start=18&rows=1#

So it’s a pilgrim badge showing Christ in Passion. The design is probably based on the Rood of Grace in Boxley Abbey, a popular stopping-off point for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

And so that’s all for now. This was our last week in the Cowshed. Next week we’ll be in a new home in the Library.